|PHARR, October 19 - For those families who were scared by DPS troopers staging checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley, it may have not have been a welcome sight.
As one entered the City of Pharr offices on Friday, two uniformed DPS troopers and one official in plain clothes were sitting down at a table with computers and a camera waiting to take one’s picture. There was a banner next to the table saying “Election Identification Certificates Available Here.”
Outside, state and local officials sought to reassure the media that Valley residents had nothing to worry about: that if residents wanted to get a photo ID card their contact details would not be entered into a separate database for use with DPS’s law enforcement role.
“This was one of the first questions asked at a law conference when we were being trained as election administrators. They assured us that DPS will not use the photo ID information for anything other than producing an Election Identification Certificate,” said Yvonne Ramon, elections administrator for Hidalgo County.
A new law requires voters to provide a photo ID, such as a driver’s license, when they go to vote. If they do not have a photo ID they can vote with a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot will definitely be counted, said Ramon, if the voter goes to a county’s election administration office within six days after the election and provides an acceptable form of photo ID. A photo ID can be obtained from a DPS office at no charge or from a mobile photo ID station, such as the one set up inside Pharr City Hall.
Colonia advocate groups within the RGV Equal Voice Network do not like the idea of DPS being involved in producing photo ID cards for voters. They say the immigrant community has just gone through a really bad experience with DPS thanks to the department’s recent checkpoint operation. DPS sought to assure residents that its troopers were only setting up checkpoints for public safety purposes. Many immigrants did not buy this and were convinced DPS was working with Border Patrol on immigration checks.
Ramona Casas, a community organizer with Project ARISE, chairs Equal Voice’s civic engagement committee. She pointed out that thousands of Valley families have some members that are citizens who can vote and some that are not legal and cannot. Casas said she does not want DPS intruding in the lives of these families.
“DPS has lost all credibility in our community because of the checkpoints. Many of our members were afraid to leave their homes because of the checkpoints. I am afraid we cannot advise our members to trust DPS with this photo ID operation. They should give the photo ID work to some other agency. Take the job away from DPS,” Casas told the Guardian.
Secretary of State John Steen was outside Pharr City Hall on Friday promoting use of the mobile photo ID stations. “It is my goal to have every eligible voter vote and have that vote be counted,” Steen said.
Asked if there was any way the stations could be manned by officials other than DPS, Steen said that in 80 or so largely rural counties that do not have a DPS office his department has been training county officials to do the photo ID cards. “I wish there was a way to reassure them (border colonia community groups) that it is okay to go into the DPS offices,” Steen said.
Asked if the information obtained by DPS when a voter goes to get a photo ID could be used for law enforcement or immigration work,” Steen said: “They are trying to look at EIC as a different function. Foremost in their mind is it involves voting and the right to vote. They want to be encouraging of people to come in. They are going to assist people that are eligible to vote to get whatever they need in order to vote. I think they have separated those functions so I think I can assure people that it is okay to go to the DPS station.”
There were no DPS officials available for interview at the news conference.
State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, said he would rather have an agency other than DPS charge of the photo ID stations. “If there is another option or somebody else that can administer the mobile stations that is something we need to look at. I do not know if we can do that right now. However, if it is an option we want to explore it. We want to make sure we have this resource available to people,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz pointed out he was always against voter ID legislation that required a photo in order to vote. However, now that it is the law he said he wants as many Valley voters as possible to obtain a photo ID. “We have to encourage people to have the proper identification. Voting is one of our most important rights,” he said. Asked if he trusts DPS to keep voter ID work separate from law enforcement and immigration work, Muñoz said: “It is important to differentiate between the two. If there are concerns we have to bring them forward and we have to address them. But, really what we are trying to do is encourage individuals to get their proper identification if they lack it. Let the Election Department know (if you have problems with DPS). Let us know so we can address it.”
Hidalgo County Commissioner Hector “Tito” Palacios said he has heard of the concerns of colonia community groups about DPS being involved in mobile photo ID stations.
“The effort to make sure people have the proper ID, I think it is a good effort and a good response to people’s needs. My information is that none of this information obtained by DPS will be used for law enforcement purposes. It is just a service to those members of the public who have a need to get a photo ID,” Palacios said.